In a bid to ensure the benefits of generative AI are available to all, Salesforce has announced a $2 million fund to put AI development in the hands of purpose-driven organizations in the US.
Salesforce Accelerator – AI for Impact is a philanthropic effort aimed at giving non-profits, charities and schools equitable access to trusted generative AI technology.
The Accelerator will offer grants to organizations that are focused on using generative AI for education, workforce development or climate action, and have ideas around how Salesforce technology can amplify their impact.
The selected organizations will get three things from Salesforce: unrestricted funding; dedicated support and one-on-one partnership with technical experts; and donated technology for a determined period of time.
Salesforce is planning to open up expressions of interest to coincide with its annual Dreamforce user event in September, and will be sharing eligibility guidelines and timelines there. The firm expects to award the grants at the end of 2023.
During this period of rapid transformation and innovation around generative AI, it’s crucial to build trust and equity into its core, according to Naomi Morenzoni, Senior VP of Philanthropy at Salesforce. Groups who are serving communities and students can’t be left to fall behind and preventing this is the key objective of the new fund:
One of the things we see as a major social challenge for generative AI is the access gap.
Charities and schools recognize the potential of new technologies, but they've been historically slow to adopt new technologies - not because of a lack of will or openness, but due to a lack of resources and capacity.
That’s what the Salesforce Accelerator - AI for Impact is about, to help those purpose-driven organizations gain that equitable access to the AI technologies.
This latest $2 million AI funding follows the $1 million Nature Accelerator that Salesforce announced last November, which provides non-profits with investment to develop, test and scale climate change programs faster. The latest AI scheme builds on that experience of putting cutting-edge technology in the hands of organizations that can make a real impact.
While the fund is still in the early stages, Morenzoni shared a couple of examples that Salesforce has in mind as grantees. It could be smaller organizations without much budget, who have grant writers working on proposal drafts or outcomes research. The organization could have lots of relevant data around outcomes and the impact they have had, and adding AI tech could distil that information to generate reports and help attract additional funding.
For the education sector, it might be a case of using generative AI to understand how a student is progressing through a subject, and tailor support for them. This could play an important role in ensuring students from underrepresented backgrounds have equal opportunities at school and college.
In the US, about a third of college students are first generation, but a third of those don't go on to graduate from college, mainly due to challenges around the financial burden and lack of support. Salesforce recently brought together a cohort of those students and their school advisors to try to understand and design how technology could solve those barriers. Morenzoni explains:
The biggest thing we kept hearing was financial responsibility, particularly the challenge in the US and how students didn't have help with the tuition payments; but also the complex financial aid applications that exist for the students. The students said they felt lost or embarrassed by some of the questions they needed to answer as part of the application process, and wanted trusted guidance on how they could get a successful outcome on their own terms.
That's where we think generative AI is going to be incredible. As the personal assistant for students like these, that can give them a helping hand in that moment, be that first line of defense and support for those students. They get the immediate guidance on things like, how do I fill out my permanent address, how do I understand what these questions are asking me. They get that support in the moment and it decreases the caseload for student advisors.
Alongside awarding grants, Salesforce will host innovation sessions with grantees and partners to understand the opportunities and risks around AI, and identify solutions that will support their communities. This is another step in closing the generative AI access gap, and making sure the way the technology is being used and built is responsible, inclusive and ethical. Morenzoni adds:
Part of the way we're going to get there is in this partnership with our purpose-driven organizations. It’s listening to them and understanding their excitement about the potential of this technology, but also the concerns and how we can work together to ensure we’re building the technology that is going to support our communities in the best way possible.
While Salesforce recognizes that the AI access gap is not a US-only issue, the company is still considering whether this fund will be open to non-US organizations or how that would work. Morenzoni says:
We are going to be working to refine the eligibility of this particular program, and we'll have more details around that in September at Dreamforce, but we recognize this is a global issue and that we're going to need to solve how we close that access gap on a global scale. Part of it is around ensuring that we have the right organizations selected, less about geographic focus, more about the readiness of the organizations.
A worthwhile initiative with laudable ambition and intent.
International expansion of the Salesforce accelerator fund would certainly be welcome across the pond, to encourage a wider range of UK organizations to contemplate their own AI developments. At London Tech Week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak extolled the extraordinary possibilities of AI as a general-purpose technology. However, he also admitted that the UK is lagging behind other countries when it comes to the reach of AI outside of large organizations.
Something to talk about at the forthcoming London end of the Salesforce World Tour next week.